ITALY'S cherished image as a European bastion of racial tolerance is rapidly dissolving amid outbreaks of street violence and more subtle signs of racism. Florence, a city that prides itself as the cradle of Renaissance civilization, is turning into a crucible for these mounting racial tensions.
``The world's watching because of our huge artistic and historical patrimony and everyone is asking Florence to resolve the problem,'' says caretaker mayor Giorgio Morales, who was forced to resign along with the entire city council in February following an violent local attack on African immigrants.
Mr. Morales says the problem has peaked in his city of 430,000 because of an unusually high concentration of foreigners - 5 percent as compared with 2 percent nationally. A mecca for more that 5 million tourists annually, the city has become a magnet for Italy's estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants who arrive each year, swelling the 850,000 illegal immigrants already in the country.
Trouble erupted in Florence at the end of February, just as legislators approved an immigration law to regulate the rising tide of illegal immigration mostly from Asia and Africa.
The law penalizes Italians assisting illegal immigration and bars entry to foreigners without means of support in Italy. But its most controversial provision is an amnesty that grants legal status to all immigrants who can prove their arrival in Italy before the end of 1989.
Deputy Prime Minister Claudio Martelli, the law's chief sponsor, said that by the end of March about 140,000 immigrants had legalized their presence under the amnesty that expires in June.
But critics say the amnesty only triggered an avalanche of immigrants late last year.
Reportedly responding to this criticism, Mr. Martelli proposed in March that the armed forces be deployed to repel illegal immigration from Italy's 5,000-mile coastline and borders. Forty thousand immigrants were turned back at the borders last year, according to the Ministry of Interior.
And the Italian Foreign Ministry is expected to establish tougher visa requirements for third-world countries this summer.
But despite Morales's insistence that the spate of racial attacks that helped spur the government initiatives are isolated incidents, there are signs that extremist groups are seeking to exploit racial tensions.
A week after the racist raid that brought down Florence's city council, two neo-Nazi groups claimed credit for the attack.
A recent poll published in the daily La Repubblica said more than 37 percent of Florentines want immigrants to ``return to their country of origin.''
And Alessandro Mazzerelli, leader of a new Tuscan independence party, Movimento Autonomista Toscano, stated bluntly, ``They are living on the backs of our unemployed, our poor, and our elderly. They aren't immigrants; they are invaders.''
Particularly worrisome for the leaders of immigrant communities is the public association of immigrants with a surge of crime in Florence.
``What is true of some members of the community has been generalized to all Africans,'' said the Rev. Joseph Franzelli, who works with immigrants.
Morales requested 240 special police agents to restore order in Florence after the outbreak of racial violence in February.
After a police sweep in Florence mid-March - ostensibly part of a crime cleanup - the Senegalese and Moroccan vendors who once lined the streets leading to the main square have disappeared. In protest, a group of Senegalese staged a week-long hunger strike under the mayor's offices.
``You can't deny us the basic dignities,'' protests Fallou Faye, head of Florence's 140-member Senegalese community. ``We are depicted as carriers of disease, criminals, and drug peddlers.''
There are signs that the Renaissance capital is struggling to ease the tension. In local elections to be held throughout Italy May 6, most major political parties in Florence will field candidates from third-world countries. In addition, Morales proposes that Florence use the $2 million appropriation under the new immigration law to set up cooperatives that would employ immigrants for public services such as cleaning up parks and cemeteries. He has also promised the vendors designated areas where they can sell to tourists.